[The Des Moines Register]

Half-a-million dollars in grant funding will target childhood asthma by improving deteriorating housing in three Des Moines neighborhoods.

The new collaborative effort, Healthy Homes East Bank, launches Wednesday for the Capitol Park, Martin Luther King Jr. Park and Capitol East neighborhoods. Viva East Bank, a public-nonprofit coalition, formed last year in an effort to revitalize those three neighborhoods just east of downtown over the next five years.

Healthy Homes launches this week with a $250,000 grant from the national BUILD Health Challenge. Area hospitals added $250,000 in matching funds.

“The end game is more healthy and safe homes, healthier neighborhoods and communities, and as a result our kids will be healthier,” said Rick Kozin, director of the Polk County Health Department.

Health officials say the presence of moisture, mold and pests in neglected homes has created an uptick in asthma rates and even asthma-related visits to the pediatric emergency room.

Common culprits of asthma attacks include second-hand smoke, dust mites, cockroaches and pets.

“It’s an inflammation of the airwaves and it’s often triggered by things that are in the home,” Kozin said, adding that he expects the program to reduce the need for medication for many children.

Polk County health professionals will offer home assessments, starting with the families of asthma patients who visit area hospitals. The service will be offered through hospital partners at Unity Point Health, Mercy and Broadlawns medical centers.

The home assessments will create a list of needed air quality improvements that will be passed along to the Polk County Housing Trust Fund. The Trust Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to improving affordable housing opportunities, will identify contractors to carry out the work at no cost to homeowners.

“It’s a big collaborative,” said Eric Burmeister, director of Polk County Housing Trust Fund.

Burmeister said Des Moines is one of only seven communities in the country receiving a BUILD Health Challenge grant to launch a new community health effort. Money for the grants come from several healthcare-focused foundations.

“We’ve talked about the benefits of affordable housing in the area of health for a couple years now,” Burmeister said. “Now this is really the first time we’ve undertaken a project that in the end will be able to demonstrate that.”

The official launch event is scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Martin Luther King Park Community Center, 1650 Garfield Ave.

Kozin said he expects actual home assessments and improvements to begin within three months.